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Review: Aretha Franklin’s ‘Aretha Now’

New album shows both progress and regression

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin onstage circa 1968.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The new Aretha Franklin album, Aretha Now, to be released at the end of June shows America’s most important and popular singer walking a very thin line between progress and regression. The best things, although few in number, are among her best ever; the lesser items show that both she and the entire Atlantic staff are having trouble trying to keep the ball rolling. And even the good stuff doesn’t sustain itself over repeated listenings.

For some of Aretha’s fans, her first album was her best and each successive one has decreased in interest. Up until this album, I think that the reverse has been the case. I Never Loved A Man was her least refined and, to me, was fairly dull and repetitious. Aretha Arrives was a solid improvement, and Lady Soul was her very best–in fact, it may well prove to be the best album of the year. On that record Aretha is heard in command of absolutely everything “Natural Woman” to “Sweet, Sweet Baby”; “Groovin'” to her triumphal “Ain’t No Way.” She proved herself capable of encompassing a variety of moods, tempos, lyrics, and styles and yet she remained on top of them all. There was no slackness and no throwaway cut. Her every nuance was perfectly controlled and executed.

On Aretha Now Miss Franklin aims for a second edition of Lady Soul. According to Jerry Wexler, it was an easier album to record. It took only five days of studio time. The musicians were as enthusiastic as ever, and presumably, thoroughly cooperative. These sessions were done in precisely the same manner as the earlier ones. The lead vocal and rhythm were laid down together, in the first stage. Then the vocal backgrounds of the Sweet Inspirations were added on the second track. Finally, the horn section added its parts on the last track. This is how Aretha has done her sessions right from the beginning with Atlantic when she cut “I Never Loved A Man” and “Do Right Woman – –Do Right Man” in Muscle Shoals, over a year and a half ago.

But the fact that these sessions did go so well may not have been a good sign. Three albums of the same bag were enough. On Lady Soul Aretha refined the style just about as far as it can be refined. Aretha Now over-saturates us with a statement that cannot stand too much more –repetition. Only on some of the ballad material does it push in any new direction. The 2/4 uptempo (like “I Take What I Want”) is boring. On much of the album, the musicians sound like they have done it all before. Their enthusiasm just doesn’t come across like it did when they socked it to us on “Sweet, Sweet Baby.” They haven’t grown. Drummer Roger Hawkins, for whom my admiration is well known, is stagnating.

Wexler tried to anticipate some of the problems by cutting down on the size of the rhythm section but that hasn’t given the record the tightness he was hoping for. The bass and drum combination isn’t as strong with Tommy Cogbill (bassist on all previous sessions) now playing lead guitar and Jerry Jammot playing bass. Not only that, Cogbill, who is among the finest bassists in popular music, is a boring and inconsequential lead guitarist. While he does a fairly good job on some of the slow material (“I Can’t See Myself Leaving You”) he isn’t nearly as good as Bobby Womack playing the same bag on Wilson Pickett’s records (like “I’m In Love”). And on the fast cuts he clutters things up with a semicountry style of flat — picking (“Think”) which is just nowhere.

There is no question that most of this record would have been improved if it had been recorded in Memphis with an expanded version of the Stax-Volt band, which, along with the Motown studio band, remains the finest soul band in the world.

But enough of these generalities. The following is a detailed commentary on the album’s ten cuts. There are also some suggestions on what new directions Aretha might seek to explore in the future.

Think: ties “Chain of Fools” as Aretha’s worst single. I was hoping it would bomb, as a deterrent to further such records being released as singles, but Atlantic is confident it will be her sixth million seller. Which is a fantastic achievement for anybody. The song has virtually no melody. The lyrics are trite and banal. (Aretha and her husband composed the song.) The vocal is disturbed by Cogbill’s super-busy lead. The piano is the best thing on the cut, and is quite nice. Vocally the only good segment is the “Freedom” chorus, primarily because it is sung over a I-III-IV-V progression, which manages to appear once and not be repeated for the rest of the song. The overall franticness of both song and vocal are grating to this listener and do not achieve the personal level of communication which soul is supposed to be all about.

I Say A Little Prayer: One of the real successes of the album. Wexler heard Aretha fooling around with this one in the studio and it sounded so good he decided to record it on the spot. What Aretha has done with the arrangement is among the most creative things I have ever heard her do. After whipping through the song, she gets into a very kinetic buildup with the chorus doing a very nice job. After several repetitions of the basic melody – lyric line, the ensemble moves very nicely into the chorus again, with a beautiful crescendo. The whole structure of the thing reveals tremendous sensitivity on the part of all concerned. It is just that level of personal communication that is lacking on the opening cut which is utilized so well here. To improve a Bacharach-David-Warwick performance is really an event and it shows that we would all profit if Aretha were willing to spend a little more time with material like this and “Natural Woman.”

SeeSaw is a Don Covay-Steve Cropper song which is given very mediocre treatment here. The vocal is quite good, but the omission of the original harmony from the chorus was foolish, because it is an integral part of the son’s identity. Again the lead guitar is inadequate. It is more the feeble sound that Cogbill gets out of his amp that hurts than the ordinary licks he uses. Other than that, the song falls into Aretha’s 2/4 drag trap. It just crawls along, despite her best efforts to give it a push with her voice. The drums don’t punch and the bass lacks sock. Tunes like “Money Won’t Change You” from Lady Soul said the same thing with infinitely more zest and flash.

Night Time is a Ray Charles staple and was recorded at Wexler’s suggestion. Of course, Wexler recorded almost all of the Atlantic Ray Charles sides and if that was all he had ever done it would still have been enough to make him one of the major A&R men of the post-war period. Wexler minimizes any contribution he made by saying that when the Genius recorded the only thing anyone ever had to do was turn on the microphones.

Anyway, Wexler obviously loves to see Aretha do an occasional Ray Charles selection and this was intended as pure fun. For the most part it is. The band does some very swinging big band things and the piano is very solid. Still, the trouble with doing Ray Charles is that Aretha is not Ray Charles and she just can’t cut it vocally. She’s not in his class and that’s all there is to it, She proved the same thing when she messed up “Drown In My Own Tears” on an earlier album. I mean, I can enjoy the virtues of this performance. But if after I’m through hearing it I can pull out a record made ten years ago and realize that it is better in every respect, right from the original’s opening, wailing sax solo, then I seriously question the wisdom of Aretha trying to do it at all.

You Send Me: Well, if Aretha should stay out of the Ray Charles bag, she should do more in Sam Cooke’s. She does wonders with Sam’s biggest selling record, and this has to be the best cut on the album. It is simple, straightforward, uncluttered ballad singing at its best. The piano intro is superb, the harmony and horns perfect. I can’t imagine the drums, the lyric improvisations, or the entire arrangement being any better. Sam Cooke would have smiled.

You’re A Sweet Sweet Man is a Ronnie Shannon song. Ronnie Shannon is Aretha’s own discovery and composed two of her best earlier hits: I Never Loved A Man and Baby, I Love You. While his lyrics here are, as usual, exceptional, the melody lacks direction and the band goes around in circles. Hawkins drum intro could have been better. The best thing about the cut is really the Inspirations singing “Sweets for my sweet, sugar for my honey,” in the background.

I Take What I Want is Sam and Dave, and Aretha’s version is no match for theirs. Wexler told me that he has tried to get Hayes and Porter (Sam and Dave’s writing-production team) to write some new material for Aretha, but most of what they have come up with is of a decidedly inferior quality compared to what they do for their Stax artists. The vocal chorus is contrived on Aretha’s version and wholly superfluous. During the break Aretha sings over just a bass. Sam and Dave do the same bit over the bass and Al Jackson’s drums, and it really makes a difference. In fact, for a cut like this, there is no question that Jackson is the man they need.

Hello Sunshine was first recorded by Wilson Picket on his I’m in Love album. The song is a major work and certainly bears re-recording by Aretha. The difference between Cogbill and Jammot as bassists is pointed up here because Cogbill’s bass on the earlier version was vastly superior to what Jammot puts down here. Nonetheless, the horns and arrangement in general are overpowering, the vocal superb, and the cut emerges as one of the best Aretha has ever done. The last 45 seconds are particularly gorgeous. Aretha shows real creativity in the way she interacts with the inspirations and the horns at the same time. Cogbill’s chord style is also good and the way they have all altered the tail end of the melody is excellent.

A Change is an uptempo piece of very mediocre quality given a very ordinary reading by all concerned. The lead guitar gets in the way again but that’s really the least of their problems. Wexler should have shown more discrimination and refused to have let this cut pass.

I Can’t See Myself Leaving You is another Ronnie Shannon tune, a very pleasing ballad. The vocal and guitar work together intimately to build the mood and the arrangements complements the development more than adequately. Nc big pretense, no frenzy, just a highly listenable cut.

Atlantic seems to be not unaware of the fact that all kinds of ugly things can happen if they let Aretha settle in a rut. Consequently they are thinking now of bringing out some different kinds of things in the future. They have already recorded a live album in Europe which should be a real brain buster. And they are considering doing a live gospel album as well, which should be even more exciting. What I would like to see is Atlantic bring out a greatest hit album this summer as kind of a landmark indicating that this phase of Aretha’s career is behind her. Such an album would be an immediate million dollar album and could easily be filled with nothing but the best of what Aretha has already done. Then Atlantic ought to consider in just what ways they could help Aretha move beyond the plateau she has already reached. The following are some observations and comments intended to suggest some possible approaches open to them.

The first thing Aretha needs is a song writing team. Every major artist in every different field of pop music relies on one. If an artist doesn’t write too much original material he simply must have somebody with whom he can work, capable of furnishing him an album’s worth of material several times a year. The Beatles have themselves, as do most of the white groups, but the soul and pop stars need non-performers most of the time.

Otis was an exception but Sam and Dave rely on Hayes and Porter, Albert King on Booker T. and William Bell, and Dionne Warwick on Bacharach and David. And I needn’t add anything about the Motown artists. The reason why Aretha needs to find such people is that it simply will not do for a star of her stature to continue devoting large percentages of her album cuts to dressed-up versions of old soul hits. Of course there are exceptions (“You Send Me”) but as a general rule she just can’t do her best when she is working with five year old Don Covay material and ten year old Ray Charles numbers.

One way or another, she’s got to be able to present the public with something that is fresh and new. There are, I might add, several song writing teams around who might easily fit into Aretha’s needs, the most notable being Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, who have been writing some of the best new soul songs around.

Secondly, Aretha needs a new band. I yield to no one in my appreciation of what the Muscle Shoals group has done for Aretha on her first three albums, but its time for a change. They have had their say, they’ve played their song, and they have now stopped growing. And when that happens new people have to be found. Finally, Aretha’s full range as a vocalist must be developed. And to do that, the range of her material has to be expanded. Her soft side, her ballad singing, which even now is one of the finest things about her, has to be given more opportunities to make its presence felt.

Atlantic may be a little reluctant because “Natural Woman,” despite the fact that both the song and the arrangement were extroardinarily beautiful, was Aretha’s poorest selling single, her only one, in fact, which failed to reach a million. But such reluctance must be overcome. Sooner or later people are going to get tired of the one dimension Aretha has settled into and she damned well better have some place to go because if she doesn’t she isn’t going to last.

This all may seem a little harsh and in a way it’s very unfair. Unfair because Aretha didn’t expect to become an over-night super-star, and now that she has it is only human that after three albums she is beginning to falter. But she is a superstar and she ought to be treated like one. I for one think she can cut it. Sure, she has limits. She also has talent. More of it than any female vocalist singing rock and roll right now. But because she has so much, it is that much more important that she continue to develop it, that she continue to grow into the beautiful musician she is destined to become.


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